The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

Is humanity less violent than it used to be? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. In this book, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies — both murder and warfare — really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else's hands than ever before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend. Debunking both the idea of the 'noble savage' and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a 'nasty, brutish and short' life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over everything from art to religion, international trade to individual table manners, and shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world — not simply through the huge benefits of organized government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas. 4.2 out of 5 based on 10 reviews
The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Society, Politics & Philosophy
Format Hardback
Pages 832
RRP £30.00
Date of Publication October 2011
ISBN 978-1846140938
Publisher Allen Lane
 

Is humanity less violent than it used to be? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. In this book, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies — both murder and warfare — really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else's hands than ever before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend. Debunking both the idea of the 'noble savage' and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a 'nasty, brutish and short' life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over everything from art to religion, international trade to individual table manners, and shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world — not simply through the huge benefits of organized government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas.

Reviews

The Economist

The Economist

... Professor Pinker writes like a modern Whig … [He] ends with a treatise on brain science, a fluent home run for a psychologist-turned-historian. Neuro-plasticity, the human brain’s ability to change in response to experience, means that people are less likely to resort to violence in their daily lives than their forebears; other behavioural strategies work better ... [A] magisterial work

08/10/2011

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The Financial Times

Clive Cookson

The Better Angels of Our Nature is written in Pinker’s distinctively entertaining and clear personal style ... At 830 pages, the book might be too long. Although Pinker says he needed the length to make his argument and convince the sceptics, I found some passages repetitive ... Overall, however, this is a marvellous synthesis of science, history and storytelling, demonstrating how fortunate the vast majority of us are today to experience serious violence only through the mass media.

07/10/2011

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The Guardian

David Runciman

[A] brilliant, mind-altering book … Pinker calls the post-1945 period "the long peace". But the real surprise is what he calls "the short peace", which corresponds to the 20 years since the end of the cold war. I am one of those who like to believe that the idea of 1989 as some fundamental turning point in human history is absurd: the world is just as dangerous as it has always been. But Pinker shows that for most people in most ways it has become much less dangerous.

22/09/2011

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The Independent

Marek Kohn

Better Angels is itself a great liberal landmark. It has its conceits and is not as universal as it likes to think — but that's true of all great liberals. And few of them are as readable as this book, whose 700 pages of exposition almost turn themselves.

07/10/2011

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The New York Times

Peter Singer

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline. But what of the future? Our improved understanding of violence, of which Pinker’s book is an example, can be a valuable tool to maintain peace and reduce crime, but other factors are in play. Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue.

06/10/2011

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The Spectator

Samuel Brittan

Pinker accepts too uncritically the pretensions of American political ‘scientists’ (he never puts in the quotation marks), in particular their dictum that democracies do not go to war with each other. This ignores the strong elements of democracy in at least four of the main European powers that embarked on the slaughter of the first world war ... It would be odd if there were nothing to criticise in as wide-ranging a book as Better Angels. It would be a sign that one had not taken it seriously.

22/10/2011

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The Wall Street Journal

James Q. Wilson

... when Mr. Pinker departs from his customary close attention to facts, he writes some strange things ... [but this is] no reason not to study The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a masterly effort to explain what Mr. Pinker regards as one of the biggest changes in human history ... But to give this project its greatest possible effect, he has one more book to write: a briefer account that ties together an argument now presented in 800 pages and that avoids the few topics about which Mr. Pinker has not done careful research.

01/10/2011

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The Sunday Times

Christopher Hart

… The Better Angels of Our Nature is far too big a book to be dismissed lightly, the evidence marshalled is vast and wide-ranging, and anyone who challenges such a dominant cliché about our times is to be welcomed … he does depend a lot on statistics, and these can always be manipulated ... And can we judge human cruelty by statistics and percentages anyway? ... Still, Pinker’s book is hugely provocative, and he is certainly no glib Pangloss.

16/10/2011

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The Washington Post

Gerard DeGroot

Fascinating but also deeply flawed … the really big problem with this book is that the complexity of the past doesn’t lend itself to bar graphs, bullet points and sweeping generalizations … His basic point is valuable … But there’s too much in this book that is simply nonsense.

07/10/2011

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The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert

Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema — a steady rise in the percentage of Britons who identify themselves as vegetarians, for instance — are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over. Pinker is virtually silent about Europe’s bloody colonial adventures …. When Pinker does take on aspects of European history that challenge his thesis, the results are, if anything, even more exasperating … Though he hesitates to label the Second World War as an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count.

03/10/2001

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